NOBODY BEATS THE WIZ
‘The Wiz Live!’ Review: A Hot Mess Saved By Brains, Heart, and Courage
Our favorite serial killing shoe thief eased on down the road with her brainless, heartless, cowardly friends in an uneven production that was still the best NBC has put on yet.
Well, Toto was good...
The Wiz Live! was the third consecutive event musical staged live by NBC in what is now an annual holiday tradition. And as they say, there’s no place like sitting on a couch hate-watching a huge star-studded production of a beloved Broadway musical. Feels like home.
Though, like any three-hour production that slogs through an already too-busy holiday season, there were times that we wished we could click our heel three times and make the whole thing end, there’s no denying The Wiz was NBC’s best live musical yet.
The competition wasn’t exactly fierce, of course.
Barring the camp hilarity of Christopher Walken doing the tarantella in chola eyebrows, no amount of clapping could’ve saved last year’s production of Peter Pan Live!, a snooze so laborious it had accumulated a layer of fairy dust by the time it had ended.
And though the previous year’s Sound of Music Live! boasted an Audra MacDonald performance of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” that brought us to tears, the rest of the production left us as nauseous as Carrie Underwood after spinning maniacally on a soundstage hilltop.
This isn’t to say that The Wiz Live! was perfect. Really, there’s just no bracing for the cheesiness of a musical theater set on your HD screen, or the flat energy that comes from a live performance of a musical number that doesn’t get the glory of applause when staged for TV—all foreplay with no satisfaction of completion.
And, with the exception of a rousing score that you’re going to annoy all your co-workers with by singing it under your breath tomorrow at work, The Wiz’s script mostly consists of scattered exclamations by the new character introduced in each successive scene, essentially existing as connective tissue to the main event: the musical numbers.
In other words, the show was a hot mess that not even Queen Latifah could save. But there was something current, fun, and comparatively spectacular in its nonsense.
The biggest flaw of Peter Pan and Sound of Music were how woefully dated the productions seemed, almost as masturbatory nostalgia acts playing for a captive audience—a viewership that’s been hypnotized to view the annual musical as a rare mandated live family event each year.
And while this heartwarming tale of the serial killing shoe thief and her neurotic accomplices may always be as absurd as a choreographed tornado, there is as much resonance and urgency to The Wiz now as there was when the groundbreaking original production hit Broadway four decades ago.
It’s more than because of some cutesy updates to the script and score, too: trap beats soundtracking the flying monkeys, choreography that has Dorothy doing the nae nae, and dialogue beginning with the folksy, “What had happened was…”
At a time when visibility, diversity, and normalizing is the hot-button issue in entertainment, there’s no denying the power of an all-black cast of Hollywood’s most gifted performers—Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, Uzo Aduba, and original Wiz star Stephanie Mills among them—taking over NBC for three hours of primetime.
(A selection of viewers were apparently unaware that The Wiz, a work always tied inextricably to the politics and climate of the day, is crafted specifically for an all-black cast, and took to Twitter to voice their outrage over the overly PC casting of this production of The Wizard of Oz. Talk about needing some brains, amiright?)
Representation is a crucial, weighty issue, one that surely resonated in the minds at NBC when they decided to go forth with The Wiz. But the joy radiating from the show’s performers was far simpler, and as fun as it was silly.
Could newcomer Shanice Williams hold a candle to the transcendent performance of Mills all those years ago? No one could, which is why casting Mills as Dorothy’s Aunt Em in this production was such a classy touch.
But whereas most ingénues thrust in this situation might tip-toe down the road with precarious caution—like a party girl unsure if those stilettos are going to be able to navigate those Meatpacking District cobblestones—Williams, though still in need of some practice and polish, bounded down those yellow bricks with a radiance that befits a teen girl in a pair of fierce bedazzled silver pumps dancing her way toward Queen Latifah.
Polished to a blinding shine was the musical’s talented ensemble, who brought ceaseless and only occasionally grating enthusiasm to a marathon of big production numbers, playing at various points dirty laundry swirling in a tornado, cranky crows, citizens of Emerald City, and sexy poppies. Oh, yes, did you see those poppies? Werk, sexy poppies, werk.
We were long promised Cirque du Soleil acrobatics to accompany the modernized hip-hop choreography, but contortionists breathing fire while dangling from their pinky toe on ribbons suspended high in the air were too few and far between to merit the pomp and circumstance before Thursday’s telecast. It’s for the best, too, as every instance of a cast member flying through the sky with clearly visible wires triggered harrowing PTSD flashbacks of last year’s Peter Pan escapades
That aside, it was a shrewd move by NBC to select The Wiz as its third foray into Broadway-meets-TV.
Sure, maybe there were those who longed for some of the excessive, arguably egregious liberties Sidney Lumet took with the 1975 rialto tuner when he adapted it for the big screen.
Perhaps there’s a handful of you out there who missed the social commentary on the state of late ’70s urban New York along with your toe-tapping show tunes, or were wistful for a breathless Diana Ross shrieking the final notes of “Home.” Me? I prefer my Dorothy a strong-willed teen full of gumption and defiance, not a whiny middle-aged dog lady.
This production of The Wiz was messy and a bore at times—the energy squashed along with the Wicked Witch of the East and only came alive again when characters erupted in song—but there’s no arguing its abundant brains (smart casting and intelligent updating), heart (the performances brimmed with them), and courage (did you read those reviews last year?).
It was super gay, too, which was a hoot and a half. It’s about time someone realized the real audience for a three-hour musical in which everyone is obsessed with shoes.
Gay Twitter was winking innuendo as Ne-Yo, sporting a slick aluminum jean jacket, popped, locked, and crooned his way through the homoerotic subtext of “Slide Some Oil to Me.”
“Slide some oil to me / Let it trickle down my spine,” he sang, perking the ears of many a gay who was too young to understand the three-minute lube commercial doubling as a musical showstopper when they were introduced to The Wiz many years ago. “Crisco will do just fine,” he continued, to the chuckles of every gay at Wiz viewing parties across the country. “Whoo! Don’t that feel fine!”
Unrelated: This is the most entertaining R&B superstar Ne-Yo has ever been, showing off surprisingly smooth song-and-dance skills as a character supposed to be rusted and rigid, and also the most acting range of any of the show’s big-ticket cast members. I’m groaning as I even type it, but his Tin-Man was responsible for giving the production most of its heart.
As always, Dorothy, Tin-Man, and Scarecrow, played by the woefully underused Elijah Kelly (previously the standout scene-stealer in the Hairspray musical film) doing his darnedest to live up to the loosey-goosey hay fever charm of Michael Jackson in the Wiz movie, ease on down the road and picked up a perfectly cast David Alan Grier as the Cowardly Lion.
And what do the four of them stumble upon? Why, they're having a kiki in Emerald City! Yaaas, gays, watch them vogue and werk in the production’s drag ball meets the Hunger Games Capitol version of Emerald City, setting the scene for an introduction of Queen Latifah in her sparkly green lesbian power suit as the female Wiz. Eat your heart out, Suze Orman.
Latifah and Mary J. Blige were the biggest celebrity draws of the night, a pressure they shouldered with varying degrees of success. Latifah stalked and mugged with proper bombast when she donned drag for her leprechaun Cruella De Vil wig, and was warm and soulful when “The Wiz” comes clean with her ruse. She was excellent, duh. Hail the Queen.
Blige, as wicked witch Evilene, got the best number in the show, the gospel barnburner “No Bad News.”
But apparently someone can only bring the house down once in a production of The Wiz, and Dorothy took care of that already in Act One. Blige tried her damnedest, screaming and shouting like a deranged Marie Antoinette, but her nerves never quite reached the camp level necessary to pull it off. But honestly? Whatever. Mary J. Blige sang “No Bad News” on national TV. Merry Christmas, us.
Elsewhere in Oz, Glee’s Amber Riley was an early highlight with an on-your-feet, rousing rendition of “He’s the Wiz,” and Orange Is the New Black fan favorite Uzo Aduba glittered her way down for a final act appearance as Glinda. Despite glaringly missing a big note in her song, Aduba was startlingly stirring in her brief appearance. She is the NBC live musical version of a hug. More Uzo, please.
It all ends with one last appearance by Toto, and Williams doing her best to belt out “Home,” The Wiz’s big number. She was fine. Really, The Wiz Live! was fine. We all tuned in ready to hate-watch the thing, having been accustomed to psychedelic crocodiles and Carrie Underwood in a ratchet wig, but this one was harder to snark through.
Part of that was mitigated by the hiring of an adorable unknown in the lead, as opposed to a name like Underwood or Allison Williams, who are far easier to throw 140-character tomatoes at. And part of it is because we’re really grading on a curve here. The Wiz Live! was certainly not transcendent, or even anything that I’d ever want to watch again. But it was Citizen Kane compared to the twin rancid garbage pile that were Sound of Music and Peter Pan.
Dare we say we’re even excited for next year? Can you feel a brand new day, indeed.